Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Old-Fashioned Revival": Religion, Migration, and a New Identity for the Pacific Northwest at Mid Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Old-Fashioned Revival": Religion, Migration, and a New Identity for the Pacific Northwest at Mid Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

ON JULY 23, 1950, the Sunday Oregonian devoted its front page to a photograph of Billy Graham, smiling broadly, looking to the heavens, right hand held out invitingly. The thirty-one-year-old emerging star of the evangelism circuit was bringing his revival show to Portland the following day. A temporary "tabernacle," a covered grandstand with sawdust floors designed to hold twelve thousand people, had been built on the northeast end of town. Standing-room-only crowds were expected for the three-day event. Portland--which, according to Graham, had one of the lowest church attendance rates in the nation--"was ripe for a religious revival." (1) One of those who planned to attend Graham's revival was Chester S. Tunnell, a student at Pacific Bible College in Portland. Graham's appearance, Tunnell wrote later, was an answer to his prayers for a "real genuine, old fashioned revival of religion" in Oregon. (2)

Graham's appearance in Oregon is an example of what essayist Leonard Sweet called a wave of "overbelief" that swept through America in the 1950s. The religious landscape in America in the 1950s and 1960s, Sweet argued, "was populated largely by unbelief and overbelief." (3) The "unbelief" was characterized by increased interest in secular thinking and a growing fascination with what Sweet called a "spinning prism of isms"--from Communism to Modernism. This contrasted sharply with a current of religious conservatism, or evangelicalism--the overbelief--that flowed through many regions of the country.

The dichotomous nature of religion in America at mid-century also describes the Pacific Northwest--then and now. The Pacific Northwest has a long-standing reputation for being "unchurched," perennially trailing the nation in the level of church membership. According to one survey in 2000, nearly 63 percent of the population in Washington and Oregon was unaffiliated with any religion, the highest rate of nonmembership in the nation. But that same survey also revealed a surprising, less-known fact about religion in the Pacific Northwest. Amid the atmosphere of seeming religious indifference runs a strong strain of religious conservatism. Nearly one-third of survey respondents who claimed to attend church regularly identify with evangelical denominations whose conservative beliefs lie outside the boundaries of mainline Protestantism, with membership rates well above the national average. According to a 2004 survey on religious membership, for example, nearly 23 percent who identified themselves as church members belonged to one of a number of Holiness and Pentecostal sects, nearly three times the national average. (4)

From 1940 to 1960, conservative religious denominations built a stronghold in this largely secular region. The presence of these religious groups can be traced to the great northern migration that began with the Great Depression. Over three decades, hundreds of thousands of people, looking for work and a better life, moved west from the Old Southwest--Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri. The West became fertile ground for thousands of ministers, competing for converts and working to strengthen the presence of denominations such as the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, and the Church of God. In addition to proselytizing whites, evangelicals recruited African Americans, built churches on Indian reservations, preached to Mexicans who had been imported as farm labor, and proselytized to Japanese interned during World War II.

While evangelical groups left a lasting footprint on the region, residents native to the Northwest did not convert in overwhelming numbers. The current strength of evangelical churches in the region is due mostly to migration. Rather than bringing a southern brand of evangelism to the Northwest, ministers brought evangelism to southerners who had migrated there. Most southerners worshipped with other southerners, while native northwesterners worshipped as they had in the past or not at all. …

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